Eighth Circuit Reverses Arkansas Court’s Dismissal of Preventative “Ag Gag” Lawsuit

The Eighth Circuit reversed the Eastern District of Arkansas dismissal of a lawsuit filed by animal and environmental organizations on Monday, ruling that they should not be stopped from performing undercover investigations in the defendants’ agricultural businesses. 

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Equality, Center for Biological Diversity, and Food Chain Workers Alliance, argued that they were stopped from completing the investigations that are key to their missions because of the potential for a lawsuit, and that they should be allowed to perform undercover investigations to bring attention to animal cruelty. They initiated the lawsuit against Peco Foods and Johnathan and DeAnn Vaught who do business as Prayer Creek Farm and to prevent the defendants from filing a lawsuit against them.

Reportedly, some of the plaintiffs have “specific and definite plans” to investigate the defendants’ farm through undercover agents who would apply for employment with the defendants and work there to obtain information. The other plaintiffs are involved in agreements under which they would use the information received as part of the investigations.

The opinion explained that the district court concluded that the plaintiffs had not sufficiently argued that they had Article III standing and that injury was speculative, additionally it said there was not evidence to show that the defendants engage in activities that would be concerning to the plaintiffs. The Eighth Circuit, however, determined that the plaintiffs did meet Article III standing.

“First, the plaintiffs allege that, but for the statute, the lead organizations would send an investigator to gather information and take video and audio recordings in the facilities owned by Peco Foods and the Vaughts. They assert that all plaintiffs would use the results of the investigations in their advocacy. This conduct is arguably affected with a constitutional interest,” the opinion said, noting that creation and dissemination of speech are protected under the First Amendment.

Additionally, the appellate court determined that the complaint sufficiently alleged that there would be a “credible threat of enforcement.” The court noted the plaintiffs’ claims in the complaint that it is likely the animals are kept in “nearly immovable quarters” and that there is a public interest in knowing how the defendant operates.  Following this reasoning, the court determined that although the defendants are private parties and have not threatened a lawsuit “the plaintiffs have an objectively reasonable fear of legal action that chills their speech.”

The court reversed the district court’s decision and the case will be remanded for further consideration.  Judge Shepherd dissented and agreed with the district court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit. Shepherd said that the plaintiffs’ “fears of prosecution are currently nothing more than the product of their own imagination and are thus insufficient to constitute an injury in fact.”